Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o was imprisoned at Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison without trial in 1978 for one of his plays. Ngũgĩ has survived multiple death threats and attacks in response to his literary and theoretical works. Earlier this year, the 80-year-old Ngũgĩ, many times a favorite for the Nobel Prize, published Wrestling with the Devil, a revised U.S. version of Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, his 1982 memoir about his imprisonment.
Wrestling with the Devil is “a drama of resistance as a means of survival,” says Ngũgĩ, who has been living in exile for more than 20 years, most recently in California. Ngũgĩ ’s life and art are a testament to the broader origins of the word “resistance” as “the impulse,” Ngũgĩ writes, “to say and act no to evil.”
Ngũgĩ ’s writings locate this impulse among Kenya’s peasants and their native languages. Born in 1938 in the village of Kamĩrĩthũ, Ngũgĩ grew up tenant farming pyrethrum, coffee, and tea leaves. The lands he tended as a child, owned by white and elite African landlords, had been stolen from his people to create Kenya’s White Highlands in the 1920s.
Ngũgĩ learned Gĩkũyũ, his native language, through stories that he and other children shared while working the fields. Then came colonial school where anyone caught speaking Gĩkũyũ was forced to wear a sign with the words “I am stupid” or “I am a donkey.”
Turning to his mother tongue while in prison was the ultimate rebellion. Ngaahika ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), coauthored with Ngũgĩ wa Mirii, and the cause of his imprisonment, was the first play written in Gĩkũyũ. Its story of a farmer’s land being stolen out from under him postindependence with the aid of the Christian church was a sharp rebuke of the country’s first president Jomo Kenyatta and the KANU government.
In Kamĩrĩthũ, the stolen land of Ngũgĩ s youth, where peasants and workers now lived in shacks, an outdoor theater was built. The authors, who also starred in the show, spent months perfecting the play. The performances opened in September 1977 and were an immediate success. The people of Kamĩrĩthũ, Ngũgĩ writes, rediscovered “their collective strength.” In December, the authoritarian KANU government shut down the play. On December 30, Vice President Daniel arap Moi imprisoned its authors.
Nonetheless, in the revised and updated memoir, Ngũgĩ describes the six months during which Ngaahika ndeenda was perfected and performed as “the most exciting in my life and the true beginning of my education.” The experience, he says, set him on a lifelong mission: “I have become a language warrior on behalf of all marginalized languages of the world.”